As the title to the Netflix film goes, Fyre Festival really was ‘the greatest party that never happened’. The promotional material depicted supermodels in their natural habitat of sun, sea and… swimming pigs. There was supposed to be Michelin starred chefs, luxury villas and extravagant cocktails. This was supposed to be the festival that only those rich enough to afford it and those shallow enough to enjoy it would attend.
Day tickets were priced from $500 to $1,500 with VIP packages including airfare and luxury tent accommodations for $12,000. The marketing campaign worked a charm as supermodels and Instagram influencers posted a photo of a blood orange square to cries of ‘but what does it all mean!?’ Occasionally they would even hashtag the festival they were being paid to promote. Tickets sold out and that’s when the trouble started.
That the founder, Billy McFarland, is currently serving a sentence of six years behind bars for fraud should tell you that the festival truly went tits up. But what lessons can be learned from the most infamous of festivals?
- Prioritise toilets over models
Supermodels and Instagram influencers were paid to sell the dream of icing sugar beaches, cocktails and cute swimming pigs. The harsh reality was that people would still need toilets and one of the few sensible voices on the documentary belonged to a pilot; Keith van der Linde. Having learned how to fly on Microsoft Flight Simulator he understood the concept of failing to plan is planning to fail. The pilot would insist on toilets, argue against tents and was roundly ignored. He and the festival planner were gone with less than eight weeks to go. Panic stations.
- Pay your staff
There was one happy ending thanks to the documentary when a GoFundMe was set up to ensure that festival staff were paid. This included Maryann Rolle who lost her life savings through the fiasco after entertaining revelers out of her own pocket. Things could have gotten a whole lot worse as Bahamian workers threatened to kidnap the well-to-do attendees and even take out hits on the organisers.
- Ensure you have an adequate stock of clean water
A particularly grim anecdote comes from Andy King, a gay New York City event production planner and associate of McFarland’s. With four trucks loaded with Evian held by customs, McFarland ordered King to bribe officials with fellatio. No joke. In the end the extreme measure was unnecessary yet without clean water the festival could have descended into carnage. Thirsty American revelers can soon turn violent as seen with Woodstock ‘99 where inflated charges for a bottle of water became the tipping point for a riot after a toxic concoction of neglected staff, a lack of toilets and inadequate shade spots.
- Confirm the festival site well in advance
Plans to host the shebang on Norman’s Cay were scuppered when promotional material advertised that the innocently named island was formerly owned by one Pablo Escobar. With weeks to go, Roker Point on the island of Great Exuma was being readied by installing swing sets then throwing sand over rocks and hoping no-one noticed. McFarland really should have checked the a calendar as The National Family Island Regatta was held on the same weekend in late April. Not only was the site close to uninhabitable, there were no available hotel rooms on the island.
- Disaster relief tents are not ‘luxury accommodation’
Then there was the accommodation. After guests had been plied with free tequila the looming sight of dozens of FEMA tents should have been enough to sober them up. Akin to a scene from Lost, luxury villas they were not and a stampede for tents and sodden mattresses meant this was closer to the Hunger Games than an uber-exclusive music festival.
- Secure your caterer well in advance too
The abiding image for Fyre Festival is not of supermodels frolicking in the sand nor of Ja Rule smoking a cigar. Despite the outlandish promotional material, it was one hastily taken photo of the food on offer that really got the public’s attention. Two slices of brown bread, two sweaty cheese slices accompanied by some meagre lettuce and tomato in a sad polystyrene box. To be fair, to offer no salad dressing is an absolute scandal. That’s what happens when a $6m catering budget is reduced to $1m and that one image went viral. Fyre Festival effectively became a laughing stock within a matter of seconds.
- Don’t invite cameras if you plan on committing fraud
In legal parlance, there is such a term as a ‘slam-dunk’, a case with overwhelming evidence for a conviction. With McFarland out on bail he decided that defrauding hundreds of paying customers once was not enough, he tried to again in a ticket selling scam. Those who had bought tickets to the festival were now receiving emails from ‘NYC VIP Access’ and offered tickets to Coachella and seats at the Met Gala (alas, only those deemed worthy by Anna Wintour are allowed in to the fashion event). To the delight of the prosecution, McFarland had been filmed by an artist named Kindo. Slam. Dunk.